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06.25.10

When Did Oliver Stone Become Sensible?

The often-inflammatory Stone’s new documentary, South of the Border—in which he profiles Latin American leaders—is an even-handed approach to a controversial subject.

Oliver Stone’s documentary South of the Border is an even-tempered, cant-free look at a topic that has just about everyone north of the border, no matter what side of the political spectrum, foaming at the mouth. Since Platoon in 1986, a frequent complaint from Stone’s critics is that he overheats his subject matter—and it’s hard to watch Born on the Fourth of July (1989), JFK (1991), or Natural Born Killers (1994), to pick just three of his better known films, and not agree.

South of the Border is nothing if not rhetoric, but for a frankly partisan political documentary it has some surprisingly lyrical moments.

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But these are strange times we live in, and this time around, Stone appears to be the most sensible guy on the block. It’s not the first time: W, released in 2008, was a sympathetic look at George Bush, if not of his politics and policies.

A documentary edited “on the run,” as Stone explained at a Monday press gathering in New York—the logistics of interviewing the leaders of seven Latin American countries must surely have been nightmarish– South of the Border presents a surprisingly coherent picture. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez (who dominates the first half of the film), Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirschner (and her husband, former president Nestor Kirschner), Bolivia’s Evo Morales (the first Indian elected to the position in the country’s history), and Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva share common bonds. (There is also a side visit with Raoul Castro in Cuba.)

They are all socialists who have distanced themselves in varying degrees from Marxism, they have all been democratically elected, and they have all been demonized, more or less, with Chavez representing the more and Lula, characterized as the closest to the center, the less.

They share something else that is important: They are the emerging faces of Latin America, and they are presenting a friendly but firm unified front to los Estados Unidos. This last point seems to have sent some kind of tremor through the American media. Fox News’ reaction is predictable, and Stone makes deft use of the network’s unsubstantiated absurdities about Chavez presented as fact by snickering, condescending Fox commentators, particularly one that he is a drug addict who “admitted” he chews coca leaves (which are a harmless source of caffeine) in the morning. The leaves were sent to him by Evo Morales. (“Isn’t he a dictator, too?” chirps an innocuous Fox blonde.)

What is disturbing is not the right’s rubber-stamped attitudes–thanks to Fox, at least, for getting the word out there and making people aware of South of the Border–toward the rising Latin left, but how pervasive the negative image of the South American leaders is in our mainstream media. (CNN and the New York Times, among others, take severe credibility hits.)

The media’s attitude seems to have colored much of the reaction to South of the Border. Take this instance: In the film, Stone, referring to Chavez’s 2006 election to a third term, says that “90% of the media was opposed to him, but he was elected by an overwhelming percentage of the vote. There is a lesson to be learned.” In Time, after the film was shown at the Venice Film Festival last year, Richard Corliss responded, “Yes: the message is support the man in power, or your newspaper, radio station, or TV network may be in jeopardy.” Not only does Corliss assume without verification that Chavez strong-armed the Venezuelan media, he undermines his own point: the Venezuelan media did not support Chavez, but the Venezuelan people, by a wide margin, did.

The most common criticism of South of the Border is that Stone doesn’t ask-the-tough-questions of Chavez and the other leaders. This is blatant hypocrisy coming from conservatives who howled in indignation when Katie Couric asked Sarah Palin what magazines she read. And it’s dismaying that the same criticism is coming from the left, such as Karina Longworth in the Village Voice (if that still counts as a leftist publication), who accused Stone of “avoiding not only the tough questions about their records on human rights and allegations of corruption, but also pretty much any question that might get in the way of each leader’s sales pitch for his regime.” (Is “regime,” I wonder, a term Longworth would apply to the administrations of democratically elected leaders in the West?)

Stone trumps the “tough questions” question by asking an even tougher question: Why single out Chavez and the others on the subject of civil-rights violations when we have given unqualified support to several heads of countries whose records are worse? (Columbia’s president Alvaro Uribe Velez comes to mind.)

And why, exactly, shouldn’t Latin American presidents be allowed to make sales pitches not subject to the approval of our media?

“Rhetoric is heard,” John Stuart Mill said. “Poetry is overheard.” South of the Border is nothing if not rhetoric, but for a frankly partisan political documentary it has some surprisingly lyrical moments. Chavez rides a bicycle in his grandmother’s backyard, and laughs when it collapses under his weight, and Stone and Morales display some agility kicking around a soccer ball, a scene that has inspired guffaws from writers. Why, one wonders? That scene will probably do more for U.S.-Latin relations than everything put out by the State Department since the Kennedy administration. Stone and Chavez exchange off-hand recollections of their time as soldiers; this is fine, both men have earned that right. Ecuadorian President Correa–BTW, a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign–says with a wink and a smile, “The U.S. can have another military base in Ecuador if Ecuador can have a military base in Miami.” Sounds fair to me.

Stone makes effective use of commentary by legendary British Pakistani historian and filmmaker Tariq Ali (rumored to be the inspiration for John Lennon’s “Power to the People”). But the best thing Stone does in the movie is simply let the presidents talk, at length and in their own voices.

The one unmistakable impression that they make is that they really don’t hate us. Maybe they should, given the more than a century of interference in their affairs and our support of countless ruthless dictators, but they don’t. “I hope,” Chavez tells Stone, speaking of Obama’s election, “he will be a new Roosevelt, and I hope he starts a new New Deal.”

Reviewing the history of U.S. involvement in Latin America, it’s hard to believe that any one who is not a cynic wouldn’t agree.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and the Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.